The Many Saints of Newark (aka Newark) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
I came into this prequel to The Sopranos fairly cold. It’d been years since I watched the mafia drama series but I figured that I wouldn’t need much foreknowledge since it takes place before the events of the series. I doubt there’s anything as trippy as a Fire Walk With Me element that requires a viewing of the TV series again. Though the reaction from many of the fans seems to stress that case, I must admit that this picture was relatively easy to follow. I don’t think I’m missing much by catching every wink and nod to the show.
As it stands, however, the prequel feels more like a meandering mafia story that has a handful of good scenes. The story takes place during the late 1960s when Tony Soprano was a mere boy. He stays with his Uncle Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) who is eager to introduce Tony to his father, "Hollywood Dick" Moltisanti. The reunion is joyous and there’s even a wedding to celebrate. But all is not well in the Moltisanti. Dick has returned from Italy with a wife, Giuseppina, who he constantly abuses while she struggles to find her place in America.
Dickie, desiring to be a better person and not be as brutal as his dad, decides to take the initiative and stop his father’s violent cycle. In doing so, however, he ends up murder his own father. The murder is hidden and framed to be a casualty of the ongoing race riots in New York City. Present during these riots is Harold McBrayer, a black associate of Dickie who, much like Giuseppina, is aiming to make a name for himself.
As the story progresses into the 1970s as characters are deceived, incarcerated, shot, and beaten, there’s a longing throughout to be something more. A teenage Tony (Michael Gandolfini) so desperately doesn’t want to be like his family, bound by crime and deception with relationships doomed to fail. Dickie wants to have a relationship with Giuseppina but fears that he is losing his grip. Harold aims to jump more into the mafia game as white flight begins but questions just how far to go only briefly in the haze where African-Americans didn’t have much time to consider a revolution. Johnny Soprano can feel his cultural influence dwindle as the first thing he complains about after getting released from prison is that black people have moved into his neighborhood.
Even for not having seen the show in quite some time, the film is framed in a way to take note of a few characters who are more present for notoriety than anything else. A far younger Junior Soprano is present but don’t expect him to do much. Other notable names filling out the background include younger versions of Paulie Walnuts, Silvio Dante, Christopher Moltisanti, and Pussy Bonpensiero. And unless you’re really that interested in the case of when Tony met Janice, there’s not much to these inclusions.
The Many Saints of Newark feels a lot less like a movie in this regard and more like a handful of episodes stitched together in a montage. There are some great moments of questioning crime and the racism of the era, complete with meaningful monologues about death and fearing the future. That being said, these elements have a sensation akin to a best-of album of great crime movie moments, delivered in solid yet rarely compelling moments. As a companion piece to The Sopranos, it’s fine but won’t amount to much else.